Tag Archives: obergurgl

5/4/13 – April skiing: where to go for a last blast

Fabulous spring skiing in Ischgl two years ago. This year, those brown patches are white

Fabulous spring skiing in Ischgl two years ago. This year, those brown patches are white

To round off this snow-blessed winter in the Alps and escape the persistent winter chill of home, if you have a few days and a few pounds to spare I suggest you go skiing.

I have a final trip booked, to Val d’Isere – not a usual haunt of mine as I generally head for Austria, Italy or Switzerland, but it will be a nice change. Last time I stayed there, apart from one short press trip a couple of years ago, was when I was training to be an Inghams rep nearly 20 years ago.

Anyway, if I didn’t have that trip booked, here are the places I’d consider…

1. Engelberg in Switzerland. The top slopes are open till May 26, the town is lively, there’s accommodation for all budgets (including a youth hostel) and it’s only an hour from Zurich airport. There are also some brilliant local guides. Read more about that in my Telegraph article from last season about where to join off-piste groups.

...and when the slush sets in, here's what you can do instead

…and when the slush sets in, here’s what you can do instead

Zermatt, where the views are at their best at the end of the season

Zermatt, where the views are at their best at the end of the season

2. Zermatt in Switzerland. It’s open till May 5, the town is vibrant, busy and full of ski mountaineering folk – and the shops, for once, are offering plenty of end-of-season bargains on gear (not forgetting the pyjamas, nighties and underwear, at Calida, towards the top of the main street). Again, there’s lodging for all budgets. But it’s far from the airport, so go for a week to make it worthwhile. Read more in the insider’s guide (and here is page 2) I compiled at the start of this season.

3. Obergurgl in Austria. It’s open till April 28, and with the village at about 1,900m and most of the skiing between there and 3,000m, there’s very quick access from hotel or b&b direct to the snow. What’s more, there’s fantastic touring, with a great choice of day tours. It’s less than 90 minutes from Innsbruck, and if winter flights have tailed off by the time you want to go, you can fly to Friedrichshafen, Salzburg or Zurich instead. Read my recent piece in the Telegraph, and my off-piste article from last year, to find out more.

4. Ischgl in Austria. The lifts aren’t due to close until May 1. I went late in the season a couple of years ago and despite it not being a good snow year, there was excellent cover thanks to super-efficient snowmaking earlier in the season. There’s good touring nearby in the Silvrettas – hire a guide and stay overnight in the Jamtal Hut (open till May 4), for instance. Keen apres-skiers will know its reputation for lively bars, which is merited – read more in past blogs of mine, such as this one, by entering ‘Ischgl’ in the search box on the right.

Just think of the tan you will get

Just think of the tan you will get

Other late-season favourites of mine are St Anton in Austria, which stays open till April 21; Alagna/Gressoney/Champoluc in Italy (only till April 14, sadly – but lift passes are free till then if you book three nights locally, and it’s amazing value for food and drink); or Cervinia in Italy, which shares Zermatt’s slopes but not its prices (open till May 5). An underrated place probably not on your radar is the Engadine, where Diavolezza/Lagalb stays open well until May 20, and Corvatsch until May 5. The area offers excellent ski touring too – and don’t be put off that it’s in the St Moritz area: there are hostels and modest b&bs as well as swanky hotels.

Of course, you could always plump for Colorado or Utah, where a snowstorm is meant to be heading right now, or for snowy Scotland, where conditions are excellent.

I’ll leave you with the details of four great cut-price deals that landed in my inbox  this week from Inghams, which might be worth a look if you can make a dash for the Alps at the last minute. I’m sure the other tour operators have similar offerings at equally appealing prices.

St Christoph, Austria. £349 for a week’s chalet-board (that means half-board, including wine with dinner and CHOCOLATES afterwards) in a chalet hotel with a pool and doorstep skiing, including return flight from Gatwick to Innsbruck on April 13.

St Anton, Austria. £349, chalet-board, similar to above. There’s no pool but the place, Chalet Gampen, looks pretty good, with whirlpool, sauna and all that stuff. Departing from Gatwick on April 13.

Tignes, France. £369 at Chalet Hotel Le Dome, described as ski-in, ski-out. Similar deal as above, flying to Chambery on April 13 from Gatwick – easily the best airport for Tignes, being about 90 minutes away.

Val Thorens, France – the high-altitude end of the Three Valleys. £369 at Chalet Anais, departing from Gatwick on April 13, flying to Chambery.

Happy holiday-hunting, if you have time!

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12/1/13 – Obergurgl apres-ski: David’s Hut

The Oetztaler Alpentornados at David's Hut

The Oetztaler Alpentornados at David’s Hut

Jolly, traditional, Tyrolean music in Obergurgl, I was glad to discover in December, is alive and well, even though the band at the excellent Nederhut is more inclined to high-volume “ruck’n’roll” than it was when I worked there 15 years ago (see my Telegraph article on Obergurgl – out in print in the Telegraph Saturday travel section today – for more on “then and now”).

On a Thursday evening before Christmas, our family group of three generations – aged nine to 72 – booked in to a fondue/Schweinshaxe (pork)/meat-on-stone evening at David’s Hut (Davids Huette), a few hundred yards downhill from the Nederhut and a place I knew mainly for its outstanding spaghetti Bolognese.

We walked up from the village (25 minutes from the centre, on a lane that starts steeply and flattens out); other groups arrived by taxi. It was beginning to snow.

The van of the promisingly named band, the Oetztaler Alpentornados, was parked outside; tables were filling up, mostly with German guests; a few teenage locals were drinking Weizenbier at the bar; a 20-strong British group, celebrating a birthday, were colonising one corner.

We’d booked meat fondue, mostly the chunky bourgignonne variety, but three of us had Chinoise, which came in jucier, thicker slices than usual. The sauces included sweet chilli as well as cocktail, curry, sour cream and chives, tartare and an unpindownable pink one. Salad arrived first, then rounds of chips to go with the meat.

The meal was spot on, as was the service – the friendliest I’ve encountered anywhere in the world, let alone the Alps. I first met the four longstanding chief waiting staff when working in the village in the mid-1990s, and the fact they’re all still happily there says a lot about the place (David himself is in the kitchen, or behind the bar).

But how was the music?

The band started sedately, circulating around the hut to give each set of tables a kind of private performance before plugging themselves in.

About five songs later, one of the Weizenbier-drinkers jumped up and danced energetically, all on his own. Here he is (in action on Youtube).

A few waltzes later Inge and… ah, I’ve forgotten this great David’s Hut longtimer’s name, I’m sorry to say… took a break from fetching, carrying and pouring to show how Austrian dancing is done.

Here they are – move over, everyone from Strictly (and of course we were rather amateur by comparison, too, when we had a go).

The Tornados played for well over an hour without a break, using a tableful of tuneful little metal bells for several songs – watch and listen here – and getting diners to come up and play them.

They finished their first set with a ‘Polonaise’ or conga around the benches and tables and out of the window onto the now-snowy terrace.

I was glad to see our neighbours join in: usually Brits find it too embarrassing to jig round in a queue holding onto a stranger’s shoulders from behind and being similarly grasped themselves. Usually, they pretend not to understand when beckoned to the line by a German, or they find some excuse such as finishing a drink or ordering another. But these ones were well fuelled by rounds of birthday schnapps.

As the Tornados rested at the bar in readiness for their second set, we paid up (about 45 euros each) and headed back to the village, the fresh snow beneath our feet and in our heads the swinging sounds of mountain music mingling with excitement about the next day’s powder…

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25/12/12 – Mikaela Shiffrin’s first World Cup win

Obergurgl, where the US team trains

Obergurgl, where the US team trains

When I went up a T-bar with Mikaela Shiffrin’s mother in January last year, she told me her daughter had been “rippin’ since she was tiny” (in English: skiing like a demon).

I was there to watch the 17-year-old American racer practising slalom on the Kirchenkar run in Obergurgl, where the US team trains. Then, already, she had broken records by becoming the youngest female racer to stand on a World Cup slalom podium for decades.

I interviewed her for Fall-Line magazine’s ‘Day in the Life’ series, in one of last season’s issues, an article you can read here:

Day in the Life of Mikaela Shiffrin

Now, a few days ago, Shiffrin has won her first World Cup race, a night slalom at Are in Sweden. I’m delighted – she was down-to-earth, focused and impressive in every way.

You can read more about the 17-year-old here on Planet Ski, and watch an interview with her by the ski reporter James Cove. There’s more detail on her win at Are here.

Shiffrin has moved from one to watch to one to beat. I wish her the best of luck at the Schladming World Championships in February!

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13/12/12 – Riding Haflinger ponies in Obergurgl

A Haflinger from the Edelweiss & Gurgl stable

A Haflinger from the Edelweiss & Gurgl stable

These days people talk about “riding” a mountain, rather than skiing it. Well, a few years ago I went riding up a mountain, in winter. On a horse. Or rather a pony – an Austrian Haflinger, no less. It was in Obergurgl, where I’ll be skiing (and maybe also riding) next week.

Inside the riding hall in this Tyrolean resort, I watched a pricked pair of woolly, caramel-coloured ears and a shimmering flaxen mane bob along in front of me while snow swirled outside.

Instead of 'hup, hup', it was 'trit-trot'

Instead of ‘hup, hup’, it was ‘trit-trot’

My mount, Hevelyn, was trotting round Austria’s highest-altitude – and, then, spanking new – riding hall (1,930m), which was built by one of the village’s “ruling” families chiefly to help revive the resort’s summer fortunes. However, these well-bred mares are in work in winter, too.

The Scheiber family, which owns the Edelweiss & Gurgl hotel, a favourite with the British and bang in the village centre, has kept Haflingers since the 1920s, and a fabulous painting of the herd grazing on its summer pasture hangs in reception.

Hevelyn and Anita with their grooms

Hevelyn and Anita with their grooms

Lukas Scheiber, who took over the hotel from his father about 10 years ago and is a respected international Haflinger judge, told me: “My grandfather brought Haflingers over from the South Tyrol – where they originated – and he became chairman of the first official breed society. They were working ponies – we used them to transport supplies to our mountain hut, the Ramolhaus.”

In the 1960s the practical need for Haflingers petered out, but the Scheibers kept them for fun and breeding, giving them basic ride and drive training, and became one of a handful of Tyrolean breeders concentrating on top-quality animals.

“Since 1980 we’ve been buying the best or most expensive youngsters each year,” says Lukas (the family set a record at the national stud’s 2006 sale by paying £35,000 for Roque, a six-month-old filly with phenomenal bloodlines). “A good Haflinger must have a nice head, a white tail and mane and a quiet temperament. And it’s very important they’re good movers.”

Whose mane is smoother?

Whose mane is smoother?

Hevelyn, five years old and, like her 10 stablemates, in foal, certainly had plenty of movement – it took me a little practice to attain that armchair feeling.

My instructor, Simone Riml (who was brought up just down the valley), took care over warm-up and cool-down, and gave the mares plenty of breathers, especially between canters.

The horses are exercised lightly as close as a fortnight to foaling, which takes place between February and April, and they only jump in summer, in early pregnancy.

Nearly 90 per cent of riders are children and teenagers – although there is no weight limit and most of the ponies look about 14.3hh: “Haflingers can carry anything,” Simone assured me. Handling lessons are available too – and they’re gentle and adorable in the stable: it’s almost as rewarding to groom as to ride them.

Obergurgl's smart riding hall - in use winter as well as summer

Obergurgl’s smart riding hall – in use winter as well as summer

The hall – a 20x40m vision of glass and pine, with a sand and synthetic surface and a spectators’ gallery – sits on a hillock opposite the village church and virtually adjoining the Edelweiss’s livestock barn.

There live the mares; the fillies, inquisitive and nibbly; the hotel’s cattle (the Edelweiss is self-sufficient for milk and butter) and its pigs (pork is often on the menu).

The mares graze on the mountainside in May and June, while the fillies spend the entire summer there. But where are the boys? Well, some may be family ponies in Britain or America, the biggest export markets, and others may be dashing between obstacles at driving trials in Austria and elsewhere. But the ungelded ones, at least, are under strict official control.

The national stud (at Ebbs, east of Innsbruck) owns the Tyrol’s 50 registered stallions, which stand at 30 regional stallion stations. Colts undergo a rigorous procedure to gain the privilege of passing on their genes.

“Each year 1,200 foals are born in the Tyrol,” Lukas Scheiber said. “The association picks the 60 best colts and keeps them at Ebbs for a period, before selecting 20 to stay entire. It buys them from their breeders, but not for a huge amount of money – it’s the prestige that’s important.”

Please, mummy, can I get a pony?

Please, mummy, can I get a pony?

More about Haflingers

  • Haflingers are chestnut – fuchs, in German (which means fox) with a white or flaxen mane and tail
  • Fuchs varies from dark to light
  • The mane is left to grow naturally long, but the tail can be trimmed
  • Feathers may be lighter than the body but there should be no discernible socks
  • The blaze should start under the forelock and peter out before it reaches the muzzle
  • In the mountains, some Haflingers’ muzzles get much blacker in summer
  • Fillies are named with the first letter of their mothers’ names; colts with the first letter of the fathers’ names.

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5/11/12: A cheap hot wine recipe

Vin chaud. Gluhwein. Vin brule. Hot wine. It’s the time of year when I think about making some, and look forward to ordering the first of the season – preferably in a cosy ski hut while it’s blizzarding outside.

At the Nederhut in Obergurgl, where I’ll be holidaying next month, it’s thick, dark, aromatic and very sticky if spilt. It comes in an earthenware mug that takes some knocking over, even with scores of merry après-skiers stamping on the tables.

Elsewhere I’ve drunk it from polystyrene cups, hot-chocolate vessels and heat-proof glasses with an impractical metal handle that burns your fingers (I think this was in Italy, where style won over substance).

Only occasionally do I find one that’s too acidic, too sweet, too bitter or lukewarm.

My wine pan. Orange shows size

My wine pan. Orange shows size

In Anzere, Switzerland, where I’ve skied since I was little, the tourist office hands out free hot wine on Monday nights in the village square, following a descente aux flambeaux by the ski school.

It’s one of the best I have tasted anywhere – and it’s usually white, as this is what’s grown mostly in the district.

At Central Sports, in the same village, Rene Schick, the owner, can sometimes be found handing out a very similar-tasting hot white wine to customers.

As well as being lighter than hot red wine, white has the advantage of being less messy. Which is why, when I last had a winter party, I asked Rene for his recipe. This is it:

Cinnamon sticks, oranges and a few little bits of star anise

Cinnamon sticks, oranges and a few little bits of star anise

6 litres white wine
4 litres water
3 oranges, cut into chunks, peel left on
8 cinnamon sticks
8 star anise flowers
Half a kilo of honey and/or sugar
…and a good dash of dark rum, if you like

Heat the wine and water, then add the rest of the ingredients and continue to heat for a while, stirring now and then. I kept mine on the heat for about an hour, very hot but not boiling.

Wine-box wine is fine

Wine-box wine is fine

You don’t need to use fancy wine – something like Muscadet, Soave or ‘table wine’ is fine (or cheap Fendant, if you’re making it in Switzerland). I used wine-box stuff, which worked fine.

Other essentials are a large saucepan and a ladel. I ladel the wine into a jug to pass around.

Polystyrene cups are a bit nasty – once I’ve used up the proper mugs I have in the house I give people large, substantial plastic glasses – not the tiny, flippy ones – then I half-fill them, so people can hold them without burning their fingers.

I can’t remember how many people this recipe ‘feeds’, but you can add more of all the ingredients once it’s flowing. None except the oranges will go off it you don’t use them up. Just don’t forget to add the corresponding amount of water as you top it up…

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11/10/12 – When it’s OK to be naked in a ski resort

“So,” said the Swiss man sitting opposite me with no clothes on. “Sind Sie zum ersten Mal hier?” Roughly translated as “Do you come here often?”, it wasn’t a chat-up line, but polite conversation in the sauna.

A towel is a requisite; a dressing gown is optional. This trio - shapelier than the average sauna-goer - are at the Alpentherme in Leukerbad

A towel is a requisite; a dressing gown is optional. This trio – shapelier than the average sauna-goer – are at the Valaisan sauna village in the Alpentherme at Leukerbad

Last week I was in Leukerbad, in the “Valaisan sauna world” at the Alpentherme, one of the resort’s four impressive public spas, warming up before taking a dip in the thermal baths. By chance I had caught the place as it emptied out, an hour before closing, so there wasn’t a sea of stitchless bodies to navigate when finding my seat.

If there had been, I doubt if many would have been my countrymen – whether or not any of them are coming to Switzerland any more. Because although British skiers like the idea of spas, and the saunas and steam rooms they contain, they still haven’t got the hang of them and find the whole thing excruciatingly awkward.

The Aqua Dome in the Oetztal, Austria, which has a large 'Nacktzone'

The Aqua Dome in the Oetztal, Austria, which has a large ‘Nacktzone’

When I was an Inghams rep in Obergurgl, some Germans staying in the Edelweiss & Gurgl complained to reception about some of our guests, because, as they said, “Zey are vearing zeir clovthe-zzez in ze sauna”. And when a friend and I visited the Aqua Dome recently, also in the Oetztal, she took one glance inside the “Nacktzone”, where men and women of all shapes and sizes wandered at ease in the altogether, and fled. Rarely have I heard English spoken in a hotel or public spa with a strict dress code.

In Austria, even very modest b&bs have a small sauna, and sometimes a steam room. I am not into “treatments”, but I like a sauna, summer or winter, and in all Alpine countries, I’ve found that most hotel or b&b spa facilities are streets ahead of British equivalents – and that’s not even counting the genuine Alpine spa towns, such as Leukerbad and Bad Gastein, where mineral springs with healing properties were put to use centuries before today’s “wellness” bandwagon.

I think it’s a shame many Brits miss out, so by way of encouragement here is my 10-point guide to using a sauna in a ski resort – without risking being reported to the authorities by seasoned Continentals.

1. Drink plenty of water, and go to the loo.
2. Take everything off, including jewellery (as it heats up uncomfortably), and put on either a towel or a dressing gown. If you’re in a gown, take a towel too – most places provide a stack of them.
3. Have a shower.
4. If there’s a choice of saunas – hay, herbs, Finnish – work out which is the least hot and start there. Leave your dressing gown on the hook that is inevitably on the wall near the door, and go in with your towel – it’s not forbidden to wrap it around you.
5. Stake out where there is space as you open the door – it is usually transparent, so you can see how busy it is before you go in. If there’s a row of hourglass-style egg-timers on the wall then swivel one upside-down to time your session (and people will thing you’re a pro).
6. Sit down – some spots are darker or more “sheltered”, which beginners may prefer. The higher, the hotter.
7. Either sit or lie on the towel or wrap it partly around you, or fully if you cannot bear to bare. If the place is empty, I sometimes lie down; with feet towards the wall is most modest.
8. Do not stare, nor do you need to die of embarrassment or wonder where to look. It is fine to make conversation with strangers – you soon get the hang of just looking at the face.
9. You’ll soon be sweating away. If you feel unpleasantly hot, move to a lower level, or get out. For beginners, five or 10 minutes at a time is sometimes enough. Then have a cold shower and/or lie down for a while (there are usually sun-loungers), or wade into a freezing tub if there is one (in the Valaisan sauna village this was 12 degrees). I prefer this to fathoming the wall or rain showers, whose controls can be mysterious.
10. Repeat if you like, drink more tap water – and enjoy!

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30/3/12 – Where to go for April snow?

Spring-like Ischgl slopes this time last year

Spring ski deals have been landing in my inbox thick and fast this week. Inghams has amazing April savings – Courchevel or St Christoph am Arlberg for £349, including flights and half-board – while Powder White has slashed hundreds of pounds off holidays in St Anton and Meribel and extended the season for several of its properties. I’m sure Crystal, Iglu Ski and other operators and agents have bargains as well.

Most cut-price offers are chalet-based – not my ideal set-up as I prefer b&b or self-catering to take advantage of “local life” – but when such great savings are on offer, no matter.

Do be aware, however, that even in a bumper snow year it’s still worth aiming high (a top of somewhere around 3,000m, I suggest) if you want quality conditions.

Afternoon ski-touring in the woods near Anzere

Even if – like in many places – you still have a metre of snow at village level, if it’s 20 degrees by day then that snow will be foot-deep slush by 2pm unless you’re properly high and – just as crucially – north-ish facing.

Last weekend in south-facing Anzere, which still has mountains of snow in the village (at 1,500m), by 1pm it was over, even on upper slopes (2,400m). I was happy to ski in the morning and go touring through the woods in the afternoon, or sit on the balcony or swim at the great new indoor-outdoor pool (more on this nice, affordable Swiss resort here).

The high slopes at Grimentz last weekend

By contrast an hour away in the Val d’Anniviers, the resorts of Zinal and Grimentz had wintry piste conditions from three of their top stations (each around 2,800-2,900m), and the week-old, tracked-out powder by the side wasn’t bad either. The crucial thing was that the worthwhile top slopes were north or north-east facing (the fourth top, which faces south at 2,800m, was heavy slush by lunchtime).

The other consideration is that places where you typically find lovely “firn” or “corn snow” off-piste at this time of year (caused by freeze-thaw) may not be as good as usual.

A wet-snow slide of the full snowpack that started on a slope of around 30 degrees and crept a surprisingly long way

In Anzere you can often ski almost every square inch of south-facing slope safely during freeze-thaw if you catch it at the right time of day.

However, the cracks in the snowpack that appeared in December – after 2m of snow fell on warm, bare ground – are still there. They haven’t responded well to blasting, but some readily slide off by themselves.

Sunny side up: lunch outdoors is a pleasure of a spring trip. Just don't necessarily expect to do much skiing afterwards

“Hors piste interdit”, read a sign at the top of Le Bate at Anzere, and patrollers were posted at strategic spots near the cracks, on the alert for one to turn into something like the lift-destroying, wet-snow slide of a few weeks ago near Valmorel in France (watch the footage here).

I may not ski this April, but if I was planning a trip for myself – an affordable week or long weekend with the hope of off-piste and enough late-season après-life – these are the places I’d consider:

The Guspis off-piste run at Andermatt in wintry conditions - but this is a good spring bet, too

Engelberg (Switzerland, nearest airport Zurich) – slopes to at least 3,000m, largely north-facing; open till 29 May; great guiding office (see my article about that here).

Monterosa (Italy, Milan or Turin) – Amazingly, until this resort closes on 15 April this Italian “three valleys” is offering a free lift pass to everyone who stays three or more nights (half-board) in Gressoney or Champoluc. The slopes go to about 3,200m and face in all directions, and there are legendary off-piste runs down wild valleys (with cheapish guiding) and superb, great-value food on and off the mountain.

Andermatt (Switzerland, Zurich) – Lower Naetschen will be closed, but the 3,000-ish-metre Gemsstock mountain has an amazing north-facing bowl and various back routes. Read more in my Telegraph report here.

Zermatt (Switzerland, Zurich or Geneva) – several high tops and possible guided descent of Schwarztor. Stay in the Walliserhof for a treat or the Alphubel for a bargain. My sister has found a super-cheap, central, family apartment but it’s such a steal that it has to remain top secret so she can always get in. Sorry!

...and when the slush sets in, here's what you can do instead

Ischgl (Austria, Innsbruck or Zurich) – up to 2,800-ish, but the main thing is that it has a lot of upper slopes and they face in various directions. A year ago we had a lot of fun there with Jim Costelloe, a Ski Club of GB leader who found us fabulous snow despite very scant cover. A friend and I even did an easy self-guided tour up a side-valley – although this year it would probably be less safe.

Tignes (France, Geneva or Chambery I think) – When there was virtually no snow last November, we had great conditions on the glacier. Stay on the upper slopes throughout the area for quality snow and see here for more about its group off-piste days out. Go the first weekend of May to catch the Black Shoes Telemark Festival’s 20th anniversary. The other high French resorts (Deux Alpes, Alpe d’Huez, Val Thorens) should be fine, too.

Obergurgl and/or Soelden (Austria, Innsbruck, Zurich or Salzburg) – They didn’t benefit from the big weather fronts in December and January, which approached from the north and blanketed the Arlberg again and again before arriving in the Oetz valley as wind. But now, conditions look great. Take the bus to the Aquadome at Langenfeld if it’s boiling hot in the afternoon and don’t miss the Nederhut après-ski on Mon, Wed and Fri.

I’m a great fan of St Anton, where I have been late in the season several times (most lately to do the Weisse Rausch, a mad annual race), but I recommend it less as a late-season place than my two other Austrian tips, as the number of its slopes that are really up near its tops, as well as being north-ish facing, seems to be fewer for its size, and rather scattered about, compared with other options. But if you like a busy town with plenty of après-ski, this is still a good bet well into April.

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Filed under Austria, Food and drink, Italy, Link to article by Yolanda Carslaw, Link to film, Off-piste, Racing, Ski touring, Switzerland